Review by John for: The Forever War ~ by Joe Haldeman (1974)
A groundbreaking and multiple award-winning science fiction war novel – it’s written by a Vietnam veteran and has clear parallels with the war in Vietnam; described by some as one of the best war novels ever written.
About: Humans have discovered how to travel many light years in a split second, by travelling through wormhole-like phenomena called collapsars. However, some space ships travelling through the collapsars are never heard from again, and some people in power assume that the ships are being attacked by an alien race, known as Taurans. The United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF), which is sending out colonizing ships, becomes increasingly militarized, and eventually it decides that foot soldiers should be sent out to man portal planets near the exits from the collapsars – their mission is essentially reconnaissance and revenge. The conscripted soldiers chosen for the initial task force are elite – they must have IQs above 150 and be extremely fit. One of the conscripts is William Mandella.
The training process itself is grueling and deadly, especially when it shifts to a frigid planet far beyond Pluto. Many of the elite recruits do not live to see their first mission – victims of the harsh climate and the fact that even the tiniest of mistakes are often deadly. Mandella and his colleagues then find out that the campaigns are a combination of total boredom and vicious action. As they know so little about the Taurans and are having to try and live and fight in the most inhospitable locations imaginable, the survival rates are outrageously low.
Unfortunately, when the survivors do get to return to Earth, they find themselves alienated in a place that is barely recognizable to them. The problem is that ships have to enter and exit the collapsars at near light speed, and this has massive relativistic effects on them. While subjectively their missions may take a few months, due to time dilation, decades have passed back on Earth. Earth and its people have gone through enormous social, political and economic upheavals, and the returned soldiers do not fit in. Most of them gravitate back to recruiting stations and rejoin the UNEF.
Mandella finds some comfort in lover, companion and co-soldier Marygay, but the war separates them and Mandella has to struggle on in a thousand-year conflict.
John’s Thoughts: This is a very clever and thought-provoking book, and it’s also an enjoyable read. Haldeman made no secret of the fact that it was .based on his experiences in the Vietnam war and his views as a war veteran. The novel pulls few punches in pointing out the stupidity behind how some wars are started, the crass way in which they are sometimes fought, and the almost total lack of consideration for the lowly soldier. Above all, the story is about the experiences of soldiers as they do their best to follow orders, to make sense of things and to simply survive through to the next day.
As you follow Mandella through training, journeys to strange places, boredom, battles, missions with little obvious purpose, injuries, loss of colleagues, attempted rehabilitation into “normal” life, and even gradual alienation from raw recruits, you feel an authenticity borne of personal experience. It’s also notable that this is not a crash-bang-wallop all-action story with an indestructible hero – Mandella is all too human with all the frailties and weaknesses that entails. While there certainly are action sequences in the book they don’t consume a huge number of pages.
There is humor in the book too, though often dark in nature. Haldeman does a good job of lampooning military thinking – whereby apparently logical thoughts and processes can end in totally illogical actions. Indeed some of it is almost “Catch 22-like” – which to my mind is high praise indeed.
I just realized that I’m three paragraphs into the “my thoughts” section and haven’t once mentioned “science fiction”. That says a lot about the book – it really is a war story that just happens to take place in a science fiction setting. Having said that, Haldeman writes a very fine science fiction novel. He has a great imagination and his visionary views on space, space travel, technology and the impact of technology on humans are first rate. It really is tough to believe that this was written almost 40 years ago.
Overall I’d rate this 4 stars. It would have been 4.5 but I found the ending a bit too abrupt and there is also something about the ending which I didn’t like – though I won’t say what for fear of giving away too much. But I’d unreservedly recommend this to anyone who likes novels about war (and particularly about the experiences of the common soldier) and to any science fiction buffs.
St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition originally published in 1974. Covers above are the version read by John, at the top, and the original hard cover image below.
The Forever War won the Nebula Award in 1975, and the Hugo and Locus awards in 1976.
John has a review and giveaway going live on Thursday for a new science fiction book. Stay tuned for his thoughts around this book and if you live in the US a chance to win a copy of Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell.
We are hitting you all hard with science fiction related posts right now. But never fear we will have some other genres included in our posts coming up very soon.